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How to talk thoughtfully about adoption

Nicole Witt is the owner of The Adoption Consultancy (, an unbiased resource serving pre-adoptive families by providing them with the education, information and guidance they need to safely adopt a newborn,...

Why language matters when we talk about adoption

The words we use to talk about important topics matter. Words garner emotional reactions from those affected by the particular topic and also inform those who are new to the topic. Over the last few decades, the language used to discuss adoption has changed significantly.

More: How to choose between domestic and international adoption

I recently spoke with Ellen S. Glazer, LICSW about the importance of Positive Adoption Language. Glazer is a family building counselor and author or co-author of six books on infertility and adoption including The Long-Awaited Stork and Experiencing Infertility. She can be found at or at

When did you first become aware of the power of language in adoption?

I first became aware of the power of language in adoption many years ago. Long before I became an adoptive mother and an adoption professional, I found myself at a dinner party with people I did not know. They told me they had four children and, as the conversation unfolded, added that two were their biological children and two had joined their family through adoption. Upon learning this, I said, "So you had two of your own and then you adopted?" They quickly replied, "They are all our own."

Over 40 years have passed and I can recall this moment as if it happened yesterday. I felt a combination of embarrassment and hurt (feeling I was reprimanded), but also respect and a sense of ‘aha’ — what they are saying made sense. I left that awkward evening keenly aware that little words such as ‘own’ and ‘real’ and ‘natural’ can have a powerful impact in reference to adoption. I learned also that adoptive parents are educators, and that there can be both gentle and harsh ways in which they instruct others. Looking back, I would say that this couple was neither overly harsh nor skillfully gentle.

What words or phrases are some of your ‘pet peeves’? How do you react when you hear them?

Although it was ‘own’ that introduced me to the topic of adoption language, other words and wording became my ‘pet peeves’ when I entered the adoption world. I’d say that the two big ones for me are "put up" and "real" as in, "What do you know about her real mother?" Or, "It’s hard to imagine that anyone could put up such a beautiful baby for adoption!" What’s wrong with this sentence? Everything! By pairing the seemingly innocent word, "real" with "mother," the speaker can make an adoptive mother feel dismissed, diminished and "not real." The sentence heads much further downhill with "put up," which almost makes it sound like babies are auctioned off.

More: How to get prepared before your adopted baby comes home

What expressions do you consider such a common part of our cultural vernacular that most people use them without considering their implications?

The expression "put up for adoption" is so common — people don’t realize that saying "put up" usually means "up for sale" or "up for grabs." I don’t think that anyone using this expression means ill — they are simply unaware.

What are some ways that adoptive parents or adoptive professionals can correct/educate others gently but effectively?

I’ve been finding ways to gently correct people for many years and it is still a challenge! I think it depends a lot on who it is that is using ‘inappropriate’ wording. For me, the easiest group are pre-adoptive parents. I simply say to them, "Because you are adopting, I can point something out to you — I know that when you are an adoptive parent, you will totally ‘get’ what I am saying," then I go on to correct them. If the person is an adoptee or a birth parent, I feel it is their prerogative to use whatever wording they want. The most challenging people are those not personally connected to adoption who simply don’t know what they are saying. I choose to let some things go, but sometimes I gently explain that words are powerful in regards to adoption just as they are regarding race and religion and other matters.

What about when adoptive parents are more interested in being effective than gentle?

I think the only way to be effective is to be gentle. Otherwise, one comes across as sounding defensive or thin-skinned. One never wants (in my opinion) to shame or humiliate someone.” 

Any thoughts about how the media either perpetuates some of this terminology or helps people use more sensitive language?

I’ll admit to not exactly being a People magazine junkie, but from the little I’ve seen of it, the media seems to be handling adoption way, way better than it did in the past. My most recent example was an article about Diane Keaton. The article spoke about her being a single mother of teenage sons. There was initially no mention of adoption. I did the math and wondered if the boys were born through egg donation. Only when I read on was there the brief mention of her adopting.

Can you recommend resources for anyone who would like more information on this topic?

I think that Adoption Learning Partners, an online educational program, is terrific. I particularly remember one course/webinar in which they outlined the different ways that adoptive families can deal with poor use of language. These included approaches that are educational, sarcastic, avoidant and humorous.

More: 2 Adoptive moms write heartfelt letters to their kids' birth mothers

Nicole Witt is the owner of The Adoption Consultancy, an unbiased resource serving pre-adoptive families by providing them with the education, information and guidance they need to safely adopt a newborn, usually within three to 12 months. She is also the creator of Beyond Infertility, a community support site and online magazine geared towards families who have gone through infertility. You can visit that website at Beyond Infertility.

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